If you haven’t figured out by now that I have a flawed character fetish, then you haven’t been paying attention to my blog posts. Much like Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones fame, I have a soft spot for broken things. A lot of this stems, I think, from my own severely flawed personality. Although I know I seem normal enough over the internet, in person it’s very evident I’m an incredibly broken individual in many ways.
I don’t say this out of remorse or because I’m seeking some kind of sympathy, I long ago came to terms with who I am. Astrid’s mother, in the book White Oleander, makes mention that artists benefit from having troubled pasts and flawed personalities because it allows them to appreciate the beauty in the world in a way that others can’t.
I’ve mentioned in a lot of past posts the importance of giving your characters flaws, emphasizing that readers don’t really like perfect characters, but I haven’t yet addressed the topic directly. Why should you give your characters (protagonists, antagonists, and even the minor characters alike) flaws and how should you go about doing it.
One of the main reasons often cited for giving a character flaws has always been because it makes them feel more real and relatable to the reader. The readers may recognize those character’s flaws as ones they share and thus be able to better identify, deciding with sigh of relief that, “oh yes, this heroic individual struggles with a sweets addiction too, he is a real person”. I’ve never much liked this explanation, personally, and most of the examples given as “flawed traits” you could give your character always seemed too pedestrian to me. Yes, I suffer from a serious sweet tooth, but I’ve never thought of it as a flaw, so much as, just another aspect of my character (and the anthropologist in me can’t help but note it’s an evolutionary adaptation hijacked by the change in environment from our EEA, but you guys don’t want to hear about that).
When I talk about flaws, I’m not talking about a propensity for swearing that makes your character quirky, I’m talking about deeply rooted emotional, physical, and psychological flaws that the character struggles with on a potentially damaging level, that overall ups the ante in the plot for the character and gives them a real struggle.
There’s a growing trend in storytelling media lately, steering away from the past over-simplified character categorizations of good guys and bad guys, towards a greater blurring of the lines. The most notable example of this would be ABC’s show Once Upon a Time, which takes the Disney characters that defined those oversimplified archetypes and smeared them into various Disney-esque shades of gray, so that now I find myself rooting for Snow White’s wicked step-mother, Regina, more often than Snow White and her Prince Charming, David.
Nearly every show is scrambling now to present characters that are not pristine poster children for the “good” and the “bad” sides, but rather, individuals with their own personal motivations and reasons for chasing after them. The only exceptions, nowadays, seem to be comical caricatures that make a joke of the stereotypical hero and villain dynamic.
This all falls in line with the reality that there are no bad people just people who do bad things. And I would even take that a step further and assert that there are no bad things just means to a character’s desired end.
When you think about character development from this perspective, it opens the door for your antagonist to be capable of kindnesses and your protagonist to be capable of cruelties.
These are the types of flaws that make your characters more relatable because, truthfully, everyone has a dark side. We all have terrible urges from time to time; most of us push it down or find different outlets, though sometimes…sometimes in moments of desperation we follow through on those terrible urges despite knowing how wrong they are, and we wouldn’t mind the comfort in knowing that we aren’t alone, that others feel this way and sometimes do these things too. Not in a sense that condones it, not because we want to believe that we’re right in our dark urges, but because we want to believe that we’re human in our errs, and that to err is human, and that the characters we read about are human’s that err.
If you have a hero that always makes the right and noble choice without so much as an internal struggle, well then no amount of a sweet tooth is going to make that character relatable to someone who lied to cover her own ass that morning because one more strike and she would be out of a job even though it meant her co-worker would take blame alone, or to someone who dinked a car on the street when pulling out but was late to pick up his child so in a panicked rush decided not to leave a note.
Letting your character be tempted towards the “dark side” every so often, even letting them give in to bad urges, will make them far more human, but the trick is in doing it believably and not letting them drift so far that they completely cross the line to villain, in the same sense that you can let your villain drift towards the light-side, even toe the line a bit, just don’t forget they’re the villain. The key, of course, is all in the motivations.
So how do you do this?
The best and easiest way would be to look at yourself and ask a few uncomfortable question: what are the worst things that you have done, what are the worst things that you have thought about doing, and what is the one thing that can make you do any unspeakably horrible thing, what would you steal for, what would you kill for, what would make you throw all your moralities out the window?
Now, what is it that keeps you from doing these terrible things? Why do you have the morals you do? Why do you believe certain things are good or bad and what makes you adhere to them?
Once you have a fairly good picture of your own inner workings, you might ask these questions of your friends and other loved ones, until you have a firm grasp of motivations in people.
The tricky part comes in asking these questions of your characters. Although your hero may (though not always) reflect many of your own answers, the characters that are farther from your own personal life perspective will be a struggle and you may be tempted to take the simplified route, diminishing their motivations until all you’ve left is “because they’re the bad guy”, which would then be a huge, glaring flaw in your story; and while readers may like characters with flaws, they like stories to be perfect, or as damn near as you can get. My recommendation for this is to read, and more importantly, read about perspectives that are so far removed from your own that it’s like having a conversation with an alien visitor from another planet. Read non-fiction books on psychology and philosophy, fiction books featuring heroes you despise. The only way to write what a multiplicity of people think, feel, do, without making them all read like one person or a slew of two-dimensional cookie-cutter characters is to know that their are other thoughts out there.
Read, and also, don’t try to write characters. Don’t even think of them as characters, maybe even don’t refer to them as characters when you discuss the story with friends. Try to write people, talk about them as people, see them as people, because how can you expect your readers to believe your characters as real, if you don’t?